Mattheos taking life lessons with him on hockey journey

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

The summer months following a Calder Cup championship usually mean celebrations and a day with the trophy. Nine months in the preceding season alone went into securing that championship.

Stelio Mattheos experienced a much different summer in 2019.

Mattheos wrapped up his junior career with a 96-point performance while captaining the Brandon Wheat Kings in his home province of Manitoba. Brandon failed to qualify for the Western Hockey League postseason, so a phone call from the Carolina Hurricanes came quickly for their 2017 draft pick.

The Charlotte Checkers, then Carolina’s top affiliate and already well on their way to taking the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion, had space in their lineup for Mattheos.

Despite a Charlotte roster with four deep lines, Mattheos quickly secured a role with the team. In his fourth game, he picked up his first pro goal in a 4-1 road win against the Hartford Wolf Pack. In 11 regular-season contests, Mattheos finished with three points (two goals, one assist).

From there, Mattheos continued to stick in the Charlotte lineup, dressing in 14 of 19 playoff games — including all five during the Finals against Chicago as the Checkers went on to take the Calder Cup. He picked up three more goals in that postseason run and added an assist.

Life looked good, really good, for Mattheos as the Checkers celebrated on the Allstate Arena ice on June 8, 2019. Before he had even put in his first full pro season, he had a Calder Cup championship to his name and had emphatically justified Carolina’s using a third-round selection on him.

Two days later, Mattheos also had a diagnosis of testicular cancer.

Testicular cancer is the most common cancer affecting men between the ages of 20 and 35, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Yes, treatment is successful in 95 percent of cases. But statistics are of minimal consolation for a 19-year-old who has just been handed this medical news.

The Hockey Fights Cancer initiative hits home for many people in and around the hockey business. The AHL is again joining the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players’ Association in that endeavor this season. For Mattheos, he has lived it directly. Cancer can take someone from the highest of highs to some very low lows. Barely into the process of packing up to go home for the summer, that Calder Cup championship seemed much farther away.

“It’s definitely scary,” Mattheos said. “And I honestly never even noticed anything [beforehand]. It’s just a fluke how they found it.”

Mattheos has some advice to pass along to his peers.

“I think checking yourself, not being embarrassed or afraid to speak up if you do notice something, and not being afraid to go to the doctor [are important].”

After the diagnosis and the Checkers breaking up for the season, Mattheos returned home to begin a very long summer.

CancerCare Manitoba, the province’s cancer agency, provided the clinical care that Mattheos needed. He spent his summer making trips to downtown Winnipeg for treatment.

“I think the doctors that I was working with in Winnipeg were amazing, as well as CancerCare,” Mattheos said.

Photo: Gregg Forwerck

Help extends beyond hospital care as well. Different relationships can provide different types of emotional guidance.

“I think definitely first my family was amazing to me and super supportive and just did whatever they could to help me through that,” Mattheos said. “My uncle’s a doctor. He was really helpful with any issues I was having.

“I have a buddy named Thomas Hansell, who I played hockey with when I was younger, and he had the same thing happen to him. So it was really helpful just having a guy my age to talk to about what to expect. And of course, my teammates, the Hurricanes, were great throughout the whole process.”

He made it back. A month into the 2019-20 campaign as a returnee on a heavily made-over Charlotte roster, Mattheos made his season debut, playing a pair of road games against the Cleveland Monsters.

However, health problems aside from cancer have caused considerable disruption: a groin issue has interrupted his development process. Three months out of the Charlotte lineup followed that Cleveland debut. Finally again back in action in February 2020, Mattheos squeezed 14 appearances into a 28-day stretch. Some momentum for a career that had featured so many interruptions.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. The AHL suspended play on March 12, 2020, and eventually had to cancel the 2019-20 season altogether.

By the time the puck dropped again in February 2021, Carolina had taken on a new AHL affiliation, partnering with the Chicago Wolves. For Mattheos, he finally had some forward progress again. Buttressed by the addition of Nashville Predators prospects for one season, the Wolves had a deep lineup, and Mattheos earned a spot amid that talent.

Sure, it was a highly unusual season for Mattheos just like anyone else, one largely played in a practice rink or an empty arena. But he was on the ice.

Then another injury disruption. Mattheos had his season end after one month and six games.

Today, Mattheos is back for another crack at what he hopes will be a normal season. He has dressed for all eight games that the Central Division-leading Wolves have played so far, scoring a goal on Oct. 23 vs. Milwaukee and assisting on Jalen Chatfield’s game-winner in Sunday’s 4-1 defeat of the Admirals.

“I think coming back, I didn’t feel right for a long time and had missed quite a bit of hockey,” Mattheos acknowledged. “So I’m just trying to get back in a rhythm. I’m just putting the work in every day and just trying to get games, play my hardest, and not rush anything, but just do as best as I can to keep moving forward in my career.”

Wherever hockey eventually takes Mattheos, he has already taken in plenty of life lessons.

“I was definitely in need of some help from a good amount of people, honestly, and everyone stepped up and was there for me,” Mattheos said. “Staying positive is huge. Just lean on those around you, and don’t be afraid to speak up how you’re feeling and getting any help throughout the process.

“I mean, it’s a really scary thing. It’s a battle, and I think that’s why everyone is scared about cancer and is so kind and nice to people [who] are going through that — because it is hard.”